Everyone's a Critic: Chris Jones on the Changing State of Journalism and Interacting With Readers

Chicago Tribune theatre critic and director of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Critics Institute Chris Jones talks with Playbill.com about the state of theatre criticism in present-day culture.

Chris Jones
Chris Jones

*

Chris Jones, the longtime theatre critic and columnist for the Chicago Tribune, is the director of the O'Neill's National Critics Institute (NCI). The 2014 edition of the National Critics Institute took place June 28-July 13 at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT.

Jones, one of the most prominent theatre critics in the U.S., also appears weekly on CBS-2 news in Chicago and on the Tribune's WGN Radio. Prior to joining the staff of the Tribune, Jones was a former writer at Variety. His bylines on arts criticism have also appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and American Theatre Magazine, among others. Jones has served on the drama committee for the Pulitzer Prize twice.

Jones' Chicago Tribune Biography pages include the following statements:

"Jones spent 10 years teaching at Northern Illinois University, where he served as both an associate professor and as assistant chair of the School of Theatre and Dance. He also served as associate dean of DePaul University's Theatre School, where he continues to be an adjunct professor. His honors include the Gold Medallion from the American College Theatre Festival, for his work with young theater critics. A native of Manchester, England, Jones earned a doctorate from the Ohio State University in 1989. He lives in Evanston with his wife Gillian Darlow and their two young boys, Peter and Evan." Playbill.com conducted an interview with Jones via email to discuss the O'Neill National Critics Institute and theatre criticism.

What drew you to theatre criticism? And who are your influences?
Chris Jones: I was drawn by my love of theater and of journalism. I also like writing the first draft of the record, so to speak. There is something about reporting on what you saw, right after you saw it, long before history decides whether you were right or wrong and about the significance of the event. I also like opening nights (or press nights). There is a real energy and vitality in the theater — however good or bad the show — and I kind of like that being my workplace as it were. I also love losing myself every night in storytelling.

I would say the critics I most admire include Frank Rich and Kenneth Tynan. I especially admire Frank's ability to connect the theater to the world around it, and Tynan had a fascinatingly complex web of passions all around him. I also am very fond of the work of Michael Billington, a man who really has recorded the London theater across many very influential decades. At my own paper, there was a woman called Claudia Cassidy who was a fantastic writer. I've just published a book of my favorite reviews in Chicago theater history and she wrote most of them. The book is called "Bigger, Brighter, Louder" and it offers a history of the Chicago theater as seen through the reviews of Chicago Tribune critics. It is published by the University of Chicago Press. It contains 101 great reviews from 150 years of writing about the theater.

In your O'Neill National Critics Director's desk note you wrote: "Far gone are the days when one could pronounce from the mountaintop." But some people may argue that theatre critics tend to be on the mountaintop. What is going to change?
CJ: I firmly believe that the changes in the industry of journalism have forced critics to be more interactive with their readers — as distinct from writing one review and then disappearing without further debate. This has to be handled with care and discretion, of course. Critics always have to stand outside of the theater business itself. But it is important to talk with readers and to be a human being to them. Nowadays, people love writing reviews themselves and talking about them with a professional and comparing their opinions. A couple of weeks ago, I devoted one of my columns to all the reviews Tribune readers had sent me of the pre-Broadway tryout of the show called The Last Ship. There were some very cogent analyses among their number.

So yes, my paper pays me to try and write the authoritative review of anything I see. But they also expect me to appear in public from time to time, explain what I do, and hear feedback from the people who are kind enough to read that which I write. I am very conscious of not over-sharing, as they say, but the top of any mountaintop, perceived on real, is a very lonely place to be.

Can you discuss the O'Neill National Critics Institute's expanded curriculum?
CJ: Our expanded curriculum this year was based on the reality that very few critics write only about theater anymore: we're called upon to be cultural critics and to understand the various intersections of arts and entertainment. So we looked at movie criticism with the movie critic Michael Phillips, food criticism with the restaurant critic William Grimes, column writing with Michael Riedel, celebrity reporting and profile writing with Mark Caro, dance criticism with Hedy Weiss and many others. However, the O'Neill is rooted historically in theater criticism and so it remains. Next year, we are going to talk in more detail about TV and rock-music criticism.

How many critic fellows are in this year O'Neill summer program? How did they spend their days?
CJ: There were 14 critic fellows this year, most benefitting from our many new scholarships that help them pay most of their costs to be at the O'Neill. Most could be described as "mid-career" and they came from newspapers, magazines, radio stations and web sites from all across the country. Many were freelancers and a couple were advanced students who want to go into this profession. It was a diverse mix of ages — people from their 20s to their 60s — and there was a real diversity of experience as well. But we learned a great deal from each other. This really is the only such national program in the country, now.

Everyone spent their very full days either listening to guests talking about their lives and careers or in writing-critique sessions. The whole idea of the O'Neill is that you write about the shows you are seeing — both on-campus and off-campus — and then participate in vigorous critiques of that writing. There also is a lot of discussion on technological change and the state of arts journalism in general.

What is the duration of the program?
CJ: The program lasts two weeks — from Saturday evening to Saturday morning two weeks later. There is one day off! We all worked on July 4! There really were 18 hour days!

Can you elaborate on the new financial support O'Neill National Critics Institute received from Robert R. McCormick Foundation?
CJ: The Robert R. McCormick Foundation, which cares deeply about arts journalism, funded the NCI for the first time this year. They made it possible for the vast majority of the fellows to receive funding that covered most of the cost of attending the O'Neill, and they also made it possible for us to offer better programming and so on.

Aside from you and Mark Charney, who are the other teachers at the O'Neill National Critics Institute?
CJ: The teachers included Peter Marks (Washington Post), Michael Riedel (New York Post), Linda Winer (Newsday), William Grimes (New York Times), Michael Phillips (Chicago Tribune), Mark Blankenship (TDF Stages), Andy Probst, Dan Sullivan (former NCI director) Mark Caro (Chicago Tribune), Michael Feingold (Village Voice) and Hedy Weiss (Chicago Sun-Times).

You are the chief theatre critic of Chicago Tribune, and you are also a columnist. What is a formula for a successful critic like you?
CJ: We are all writers and I think great critics write from both their head and their heart. They do not necessarily confine themselves to whatever stands in front of them, but they write about art, life, death and the meaning of our lives, where they can. Their work is fun to read and critics also analyze whatever they are reviewing with care and accuracy. They should be interesting to read even if the reader has no intention whatsoever of ever going to see the show. And to those who know the most about their show, their writing should ring true. There should be passion behind the writing — and great respect for the reader and her time.

Why do you think there is a dearth of female, Latino and African-American voices in theatre criticism?
CJ: There is a long history in my city (Chicago) of phenomenal woman critics — Claudia Cassidy, Glenna Sykes, Hedy Weiss. In New York, there still remains work to be done to diversify the people on the aisle, as Linda Winer noted in her presentation to us. We all have to work harder to attract more diverse critics — it is a small and challenged profession, but a satisfying one.

What are the factors that led to the decline of American drama criticism?
CJ: I do not believe American dramatic criticism is in decline — it has just changed shape. After all, what are shows like "American Idol" or "America's Got Talent " if not, in essence, a great meeting of artists and critics? Critics just have to understand that there is a great thirst for their work, but we have to become more adept at delivering it through different platforms. I think it is very important for us to educate readers that professional critics can be trusted much more than amateur reader reviews, which I find unreliable and, in some instances, corrupted by money and influence. People read more reviews than ever these days — we just have to focus on who is writing them and educating people on the importance of the unbiased, professional opinion.

What are you doing at the O'Neill National Critics Institute to revive American drama criticism?
CJ: Well, it's partly a matter of training critics to be the best they can be and also having a few spots at the NCI for emerging writers who just want to work on their writing in a very intensive fashion. There also were folks this year who had done something else for much of their life, and had turned to arts criticism later in their professional lives. I think it is also important to talk about the state of the profession and explore new models for the future. Critics are not good self-promoters, as a rule. Nor are most of us joiners, so to speak. Indeed, we all compete. We like to write our reviews and let that do the talking. All of that is well and good. But we also have to tend to the future of our profession, I think.

What is your opinion on New Yorker writer John Lahr's technique of mixing interviews, feature articles and criticism?
CJ: I am a big fan of John Lahr's work. He has fiercely loyal readers, a distinctive style and a powerful voice. He also really knows what he is talking about.

Do you think it is a good idea that journalists and critics were disinvited from voting for Tony Awards?
CJ: I think journalists were valuable as Tony voters, as they don't have vested interests. Note that some journalists do now vote again.

Have you walked out on a play or musical?
CJ: Never. Well, once. The comic Bob Zmuda (longtime collaborator with Andy Kauffman) was doing a show that went on until after 2 AM in the morning. It was still going as I left. And I only left because I figured out that the show would not end until I did.